“The girls aren’t allowed to play on the pitch!”
Those were the alarming words of a 14-year-old footballer as Norway took to the field at their training base camp at the home of Western Springs AFC (WSAFC) at Seddon Fields in Auckland.
Though the statement lacked accuracy, perhaps betraying the teenager’s true grasp of a years-long issue, the truth behind it was almost just as worrying.
While the club hosted one of the biggest European sides for a month during the Women’s World Cup, receiving a government grant of NZ $800,000 (€441,000, $487,000) for the improvement of facilities in the process, the women’s team — regarded as one of the best in the country — had spent months fighting with the Western Springs board for the most basic of rights, including equal use of facilities and the use of the clubs premier pitch.
Many of the senior women’s players had hoped in conjunction with the World Cup they could inspire a new generation to take up football but instead remain concerned about missed opportunities having been drained by an equality battle that should never have come to pass.
The women’s team’s struggle for recognition and respect drew the attention of the national side, with an outpouring of support offered from the New Zealand national team.
“It hit home really hard,” Football Ferns defender Claudia Bunge told DW. “The girls in the Ferns, we know how hard it is to get into the position to fight to be on the national team and unfortunately getting into these types of positions, you are on the back foot to men.
“Something that we can do as a team, when we see issues like this arise, is simply being vocal and standing up for equality. It is really important to do, even in the position as professional players we are now in, and something important for young girls to see as well.
“It’s important for us now that we are in the spotlight that we are still up to date with those domestic issues going on and standing up to it.”
Years of strife no longer sustainable
As the dust continues to settle on a contentious period for the Western Springs AFC squad, the players who spoke with DW did so on condition of anonymity.
Although the contract that was ultimately drawn up between the women’s side and club executives included the right for the players to speak to the media — they remain hesitant of a backlash.
With New Zealand having no professional football leagues, both the men’s and women’s WSAFC teams compete in the top tier of the amateurs, and last December the women fell narrowly short of lifting the title.
As an amateur team the only renumeration for the players comes in the form of travel expenses, where the men’s senior squad would allegedly receive up to NZ $400 compared to the NZ $50 received by the women’s squad.
Although the initial call for parity came from a monetary perspective, the players turned their focus in February to ensuring the legacy of the World Cup for young girls was impactful.
“As players we were taking our own time to see what we could do to leverage the World Cup at Springs to really drive engagement and participation,” one player explained to DW.
“We saw with the Women’s Rugby World Cup, participation of young girls really shot off and it’s crazy how much it’s growing. We were saying ‘let’s make sure we’re the club to benefit from the World Cup’ but the ideas we sent the executive were ignored.”
World Cup legacy in doubt
The WSAFC women’s successful season came in spite of the lack of support and facilities provided by the club to their players.
A key differential between what was on offer to the men’s and women’s senior squads was access to strength-and-conditioning coaches and regular physiotherapy.
But of equal importance moving forward was the implementation of a plan to secure the long-term futures of girls who wanted to play at the club, given that there was a notable drop in participation as the age groups progressed, compared to the men’s teams.
“We were talking to the club a lot about development pathways for young girls,” another player said. “How can we know that the little 5-year-old girl who steps into the club is protected and has a pathway all the way through to when she’s 45 and playing with her friends.
“That was and still is lacking. For us it was about making sure we keep girls in the game and not losing them to other sports like rugby or netball.
“As players we know the impact football has had on our lives and our mental health. We were asking for a plan to drive that but it’s also initially just trying to understand what that would look like.”
Eventually after 19 days of arbitration between the senior women’s side, who were supported on a pro bono basis by two lawyers, and the club an agreement for full parity between both genders was agreed. Even so, legitimate pathways thought up and then implemented by the club remain a far-flung reality for now.
“What happens to women’s football when we don’t have to fight?” the first player mused. “What happens when we’re just athletes who are there to play sport? When our whole focus is just on playing?”
These are questions the current Western Springs players are hoping the next generation do not have to ask.
Edited by James Thorogood